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Vanities is the musical equivalent of a beach read

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As the weather warms, it's time for light clothes, light drinks and light entertainment. Though it's not quite summer yet, Theatre Raleigh has opened its 10th season of Hot Summer Nights with VANITIES: THE MUSICAL, a chick-lit beach book of a musical.

Directed by Lauren Kennedy, it features three sweet-voiced actresses in the story of a friendship among women that spans the decades between high school and maturity.

Although billed as a "new musical," it is not brand new. Kennedy was part of the off-Broadway cast in 2009, when David Kirshenbaum created music and lyrics based on Jack Heifner's 1976 play. Following a May 14 preview, Kirshenbaum was present for the official opening night on May 15, joining Kennedy for her preshow speech and telling the audience that even during the original rehearsals, he and the playwright thought that Kennedy should direct the show one day. She does so with verve, effectively using standard musical tropes and good comic timing to keep the single 105-minute act zipping along.

We first see Kathy (Morgan Parpan), Joanne (Kate McMillan) and Mary (Meredith Jones) at their vanity tables, wearing skimpy satin underclothes and singing a paean to the mirror as a tool for knowing themselves, along with a praise song to cosmetics and their makers.

Soon, they're in their saddle shoes, planning a pep rally for the football team at their small-town Texas high school. Switching to cheerleader dresses, they carry on practicing and then segue into a very funny song, full of hopes and fears, about their versions of the American dream, slated to begin when they go off to college.

These scenes serve to establish their individual characters and the unlikely quality of their friendship, which is based more on accidents of time and place than any great similarity of personalities or goals. Even more remarkable than the friendship of girls with entirely different longings is that by the end of this first section, we have already begun to care for them ourselves.

The songs are pleasant, with some surprisingly acute lyrics, and the actresses do a great job singing, dancing Kennedy's choreography and making real people out of callow characters. But on opening night, the band was uncomfortably loud at times. Wireless microphones made the singers audible, though sometimes just barely. But, taped to the women's foreheads, those alien protrusions were distracting, especially in a side light.

The lighting in general was jerky and unrefined—very unusual for designer Chris Bernier, so perhaps there was a technical issue. But Thomas Mauney's scene design cleverly added action. The vanity tables rotate and roll to become other place-marking items, returning to their original function periodically so that the women can sing variations on the first song—little arias filled with the names of cosmetic products and procedures—at benchmarks in their lives.

Denise Schumaker's smart costumes carry the characters from being hopeful high schoolers in 1963 to older, wiser women decades later. When the trio reaffirms its friendship after a major rift, they sing, in different words, the song girls learn in Scouts: "make new friends / but keep the old / one is silver / the other gold."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Mirror Mirror"

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